Germany in 1848-1849 was the scene of violence and revolution. Numerous individuals participated in attempts to overthrow existing provincial governments. When these revolutions all ended in failure, the would-be revolutionaries were forced to flee Germany or face possible imprisonment or execution. Many fled to Zurich and London. From those cities, many then continued on to new homes in the U. S.
Most of these German immigrants believed in equality and democracy. They disliked the institution of slavery, sensing how its very existence contradicted the lofty phrases of the Declaration of Independence. A majority of Germans settled in the North, partly because of their opposition to slavery and partly because there were more opportunities for free laborers in the North. Also, the climate and landscape in many parts of the North more closely resembled that of their native Germany than did the South.
Germans in antebellum America tended to live close to one another in ethnic neighborhoods. They spoke German in their day-to-day dealings, and their childrens schools were taught in German. Most large northern cities had at least one German-language daily newspaper. The Germans also formed clubs known as Turnvereins, which emphasized exercise and physical culture. Some members of the Turnvereins also formed rifle clubs and joined local militia organizations. When war broke out with the South, these Turners (as members of Turnvereins were called) were a source of ready manpower which authorities in Washington, D.C. sought to mobilize.
One way to quickly mobilize masses of German-American men was to grant commissions to influential members of the German-American community. Many of the most influential men in the German-American community were Forty-Eighters, that is, men who had participated in the failed revolutions of 1848-1849. These men often had military experience and a number had, at one point, been professional soldiers in German armies.
Franz Sigel was such a man. He had led revolutionary forces in Baden in 1848-1849 and was a graduate of the military academy at Karlsruhe. He was not especially successful as a Civil War general. A rebel force composed mainly of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute at the Battle of New Market in 1864 defeated Union forces under his command. Sigel was an important member of the German community in St. Louis. He was a very successful recruiter of German-American men into the Union Army and was on friendly terms with President Lincoln for that reason. Sigel was one of four German-Americans who became major generals in the Union Army. The others were Peter Osterhaus, Carl Schurz, and Adolph Steinwehr.
A Forty-Eighter who was more successful militarily was August Willich. Willich was an early adherent of Karl Marx, who had been a commander of artillery in the Prussian Army. Willich started the war as commander of a regiment from Indiana and later became a brigade commander under Generals Rosecrans, Grant, and Sherman. His brigade was known as "The Horn Brigade," because Willich relied on the bugle to surmount difficulties posed by the fact that English was not the only language spoken by members of his brigade. During the Atlanta Campaign he was shot through the right arm and shoulder. He never regained full use of that arm. After the war, he lived quietly in Wisconsin. Willich was one of nine German-Americans who became brigadier generals in the Union Army.
Union Army records show 177,000 German-born men served in the Union Army. When we add to that figure men born in the U.S. of German parents, it can be seen that German-Americans played a significant role indeed in the eventual Union Army victory.
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